by Ismet Hajdari

KRAVASERI, Kosovo — The solemn sounds of an organ echoed around this remote mountain village in the small Catholic community gathered for Sunday mass in a newly-built stone church.

A Catholic nun rings the bell at a church in the village of Kravaseri (AFP, Armend Nimani)

A freshly-painted image of the crucified Christ looked down on seven pews packed with believers, mainly farmers, their faces tanned by the sun after toiling in the fields.

“Today we sing aloud, we do not have to sit in darkness as the gloomy, terrible days are gone and joy has dawned on us,” a sister chanted in Albanian. Nothing out of the ordinary, even in overwhelmingly Muslim Kosovo, one might think.

Villagers pray at a Catholic church in the village of Kravaseri (AFP, Armend Nimani)

But the church was built in 2008, the same year as 65-year-old Beg Bytyqi declared himself a Catholic Christian. Bytyqi was one of the first villagers to embrace Christianity openly after their forebears practised the faith in secret for hundreds of years while publicly proclaiming themselves to be Muslims.

“I inherited the faith from my father as he did from his. Ever since I remember, we have celebrated Christmas and Easter in secrecy, holding ceremonies at home,” he said. Only about 50,000 of Kosovo’s 1.7 million citizens are Catholics, while more than 90 percent of the population is Muslim.

About 40 people from Kravaseri village, home to around 100 families, have reverted since 2008 to their ancestors’ religion, shedding light on the phenomenon of crypto-Catholics. Known in Kosovo as Laramans — meaning colourful or many-faceted in the Albanian language — they have turned away from the Islam brought in by the Ottoman Turks who conquered the Balkans in the 15th century.

Under Ottoman rule many Christians converted to Islam to avoid the high taxes imposed on them while churches and monasteries were turned into mosques. But in Kosovo, many kept the faith in secret, taking Muslim names and participating in Islamic rites but remaining Christians in their inner spiritual life, said local bishop Shan Zefi.

Bytyqi said his family used to “bless the bread for Christmas by ourselves, and lit candles on it.” “Afterwards, we would burn wax in a fireplace,” he said.

Zefi said the believers were “broken in half” by their dual religious identity, going to the mosque by day and church by night. “It was a recipe for survival. They could not exercise their faith publicly but they kept it stubbornly inside their homes,” said Lush Gjergji, editor-in-chief of the Catholic monthly paper Drita (Light).

Bytyqi said one floor in his house “was set out for Christian rites and ceremonies” while another served for Muslim ones, “when our neighbours came for Islamic holidays.” “The elders kept the secret away from the children, fearing they would blow it,” said journalist Ismet Sopi.

The area around Sopi’s village of Llapushnik in central Kosovo — where most of the crypto-Catholics live — “is full of Christian place names and traces of churches,” he said, pointing at the map.

Jahja Drancolli, a history professor at Pristina University, said Kosovo’s proclamation of independence from Serbia in 2008 had prompted the secret Catholics to declare their own autonomy. “The atmosphere now encourages the expression of religious diversity,” Drancolli said. Also, he added, “Looking for the identity that existed before the Ottomans, they have realised it can be found only in Europe. “The more Kosovo moves towards a more European society the more apparent this phenomenon will become.”

Local Church authorities estimate that hundreds of Kosovo’s majority ethnic Albanians have been baptised into the Christian faith since 2008.

Sopi, 52, who was baptised with a dozen other people in 2008, said the move brought no “huge change” in his life. “But there is no any longer any camouflage on our side,” he said. “People have the right to declare themselves what they want… to choose between Jesus and Mohamed, the Koran or the Bible as both are holy books,” said Filloreta Bytyqi, another resident of Kravaseri.

The Catholic Church in Kosovo has managed the process carefully, to avoid creating divisions and conflicts between Muslims and Christians, said Marjan Ukaj, the head of the Church body overseeing the conversions.

“There are many people waiting to be baptised. We do not baptise anyone without preparation which takes a year at least,” Ukaj said.

The process includes education to help the newly emergent believers “not to find themselves at once on the other and unknown side,” he explained.

For now, Kosovo Muslims do not mind the new converts.

Islamic official Resul Rexhepi is sure that the new converts cannot change the statistical balance between the confessions in Kosovo, where Muslims “absolutely dominate.”

“It is not a threat to national unity which has been tempered through history and tough times,” he told AFP in the newly refurbished headquarters of the Islamic community in Pristina.

For Bytyqi, “peace of mind” has finally come after 61 years of being a Muslim in public and only four as a Christian.

“I have paid my debt. But I do not impose it (the Catholic faith) on my children, it is up to them,” he said.

His 39-year son Agim said he has yet to decide whether to follow in his father’s footsteps steps.

“I go to the church and to the mosque, as they are both God’s houses,” Agim said.

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